Issue of Processed World from winter 1994.
Processed World #32
Table of Contents
from our readers
Readers Blurt Back
responses to pw reader survey
Trading Futures: The Abolition of the Economy
analysis by mickey d.
fiction by chris carlsson
Boudoir & Bidet
tale of toil: wifing for dollars, by kwazee wabbitt
A Drink of Water
fiction by jon christensen
The Shape of Truth to Come: New Media & Knowledge
analysis by chris carlsson
Slashing the Semiotic Cityscape
report on guerilla art, by d.s. black
Terror of the Scientific Sun
article on nuclear weapons, by greg williamson
Haitis in Rush Hour
poem by christopher cook
by suzanne freeman, sam friedman, lyn lifshin, robert w. howington. linda
johnson, clifton ross,
alexander laurence & david fox
Death of a Nation
future scenario by adam cornford
TRANZITZONE: Cyclical Catastrophe
tale of transit hell by d.s. black
Two Wheels Good! Four Wheels Bad!
transit analysis by primitivo morales
reflections by kwazee wabbitt
poem by adam cornford
Critical Mass Update:
a good idea knows no boundaries!
Welcome to Pacifica
fiction by michael c. botkin
Tech Talk: Mediamatic and Wired
magazine reviews of mediamatic and wired, by chris carlsson
On the Job Action
review of victor santoro's fighting back, by primitivo morales
The Job Thing
review of comic anthology the job thing: stories about shitty jobs, by linda johnson
analysis by richard wool
The Pyramid and The Tree
article by adam cornford
Death of a nation
Fiction about the collapse of American capitalist society by Adam Cornford.
As the twentieth century closes, the USA has become what the New York Times at the time of the Gulf "War" called a "Hessian state": economically depressed, technologically backward in all areas except the military. The US capitalist class has come more and more to resemble the "comprador bourgeoisies" of Central America, living on income skimmed off by speculation or by investment in still poorer countries, while most domestic industry is foreign-owned and the mean real wage drops sharply below Western European levels. The majority of the employed -- about 65% of the working-age population have some sort of job -- are low-paid, insecure workers in banking, insurance, data processing, weapons manufacture, light assembly, domestic service, and retail sales.
Literacy beyond the third-grade level is becoming a minority acquisition, since real education has been almost completely privatized and in most states only the well-to-do can afford college. The lower layers of the working population, part-time and short-term, shade off into a vast mass of desperate unemployed. Between meager welfare checks (which must generally be worked for into the bargain), the unemployed support themselves by casual labor, street vending, petty crime, drug dealing, and prostitution. The latter, despite AIDS, is one of the few growth industries, catering especially to European and Japanese tourists, who love the ethnic variety afforded by the vast red-light districts of LA and NY. About three-fifths of all African-Americans, half of all Latinos, and a quarter of all whites experience "Third World" infant mortality, nutrition, life expectancy, and housing quality.
Prodigal use of fossil fuels continues, along with a renewal of the nuclear power program. The consequence is the continued devastation of the Alaskan tundra, the California/Oregon coastline, the Dakotas, and large areas of the southwest (as "National Sacrifice Areas" for oil, coal, and uranium). Cancer clusters proliferate around the ever greater number of toxic dumps and former industrial areas, as around nuclear plants. The US government, desperate for revenue, starts reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from abroad, as well as accommodating most of Japan's toxic wastes. There is deepening ecological crisis as the Greenhouse Effect goes into high gear around 2010. With continental weather patterns disrupted, drought in the Midwest leads to famine in Eastern Europe and other countries dependent on American grain. Within the US, hunger increases.
The military-police complex clings to this dying beast like a giant tick. Heavily armed police stage quasi-military occupation of poor neighborhoods, using the pretext of "gang control" or else straight counterinsurgency. Civil liberties continue to erode, for the poor especially. For the so-called middle class too, the freedoms of speech, information, and assembly are curtailed for reasons of "war on crime," or by the corporate "neighborhood associations" that increasingly run suburban enclaves, levying their own taxes, imposing rigid codes of conduct on residents, and operating their own security forces. Data collected through automated transaction systems is accumulated into "virtual dossiers" on every citizen, linked by identifiers like Driver's License and Social Security numbers; these dossiers are used by both government and private intelligence services to target deviant behaviors, and to lock out troublemakers from employment, rental housing, education, loans, and informational services. Attempts to organize workplace or rent strikes are routinely broken by racism, injunctions, and/or semi-official thuggery. Dissent, beyond the mildest and least effectual expressions, is effectively criminalized.
Despite this clampdown (and also because of it) the 2010's see the growth of a sizable fascist movement of enraged, mostly young, barely literate whites (with a good sprinkling of college boys and professionals) who blame blacks and immigrants for economic decline. In some areas the fascists operate inside the shell of the local or regional Republican party, in others outside it as pseudo-populist formations; some are Christian Fundamentalists, others relatively non-religious racialists or even primitivistic polytheists like the core of the old Nazi SS. These white nationalists often attack workers and people of color; but they also fight the police, believing them to be deluded agents of the "Globalist Financial Elite."
The old-line reformist African-American and Latino leadership is helpless in the face of this onslaught. Younger working-class black and brown people respond at first mainly with demagogic or protofascist forms of nationalism a la Nation of Islam -- patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic, counter-racist and often anti-Semitic, and deeply authoritarian. (These tendencies are reinforced by the large numbers of young men who have been part of race-based prison mobs.) Uniformed militants of these rival political gangs patrol the borders of their respective ghettos, clashing occasionally in firefights in which the police hesitate to intervene. Within these borders, they practice terror and extortion. They are most viciously hostile to any tendency that seeks to make common cause across racial lines and according to class interest.
At the behest of transnational corporations (TNCs), the US military gets into one counterinsurgency "resource war" after another -- to protect copper in Chile or Zambia, oil in the Mideast or Africa, European and Japanese factories in Brazil or Korea, or on behalf of local client states like Kuwait. US troops are also used, sometimes under UN auspices, sometimes not, to police regional ethnic or religious conflicts where the extraction of strategic resources may be affected, as in Somalia in the early '90s. When urban insurrections break out, as they do with increasing frequency and desperation despite ever-more brutal repression, these troops are also flown in to back up the militarized police and the National Guard.
The concentration of media ownership in hands of large TNCs continues, leading to virtually total press self-censorship. A plethora of "McNews" TV channels cheerlead for the government, except when their knees jerk in Rockette-style unison against any reform that might limit the power or mobility of capital. Entertainment mostly continues dumbing down into violent/soft-pornographic comic-book movies, or else wholesome, heartwarming kitsch for the whole (heterosexual, conservative, conventionally religious) family. This situation is not essentially changed by the proliferation of TV channels and the spread of "interactivity," since the terms on which the stories can be altered by audience members to suit their own tastes are defined by the "intelligent" software that generates the simulacra of characters and settings from corporate image libraries. Similarly, books are marketed by demographic segments with a heavy racial slant, as pop music has already been for decades.
A trickle of critical and independent-minded work still makes it onto the market, however, simply because the market for it exists. Amid mountains of reactionary rubbish, oppositional content slips through: talk shows where social issues are debated under the disguise of "family problems"; populist thrillers about tracking down fascist conspiracies; social dramas with a feminist or pro-poor slant; a lesbian family sitcom so popular that the network doesn't cancel it despite fundamentalist pressure.
"Serious" or "high" artists, meanwhile continue to divide into three castes: successful servants of the rich (fashionable painters and sculptors who've clawed their way up through the NY and LA art-marts, and their equivalents in literature; academic artists and writers with secure gigs in colleges, doing safe, mostly apolitical, sometimes vaguely "experimental" art or novels that sell 2,000 copies; and marginal Bohemians living in decaying urban neighborhoods, producing poetry, experimental video, and performance art, as well as traditional visual forms and avant-pop or garage-grunge kinds of music.
By contrast with most commercial and subsidized art, the urban subcultures produce work that ranges from nihilist to fiercely oppositional. Black and Latino nationalists also produce propaganda art analogous to old Soviet-style "Socialist Realism" -- nostalgic stereotypes of noble Africans or Aztecs, cartoon villain whites, and gross antisemitic caricatures. There is lots of apocalyptic fantasy -- Christian and Islamic Revelation motifs, visions of bloody massacre and revolution both Left and Right, agonized requiems for the end of life on Earth. But other work illuminates subversive possibilities, humorously or bitterly attacking the rules of race, gender, money, work, and the social hierarchy generally.
At first, most of this material doesn't get out of the subculture ghettos. However, the now more multiracial inner-city intelligentsia eventually synthesizes "neo-hop," descended from hip-hop, various Afro-Caribbean musics, punk/metal, and rap on the one hand and old-style underground video and performance art on the other. Neo-hop in turn generates a growing slew of independent multimedia producers who use pirated video-capture, music-sampling, and animation software to produce hybrid "virtual performance" or "garage reality" shows. These circulate as optical disks or as encrypted, compressed feeds onto computer networks and outlaw BBSs (since there are now too many local phone systems to control completely). The "ops" and "feeds" range in quality from the crude to the highly sophisticated, and in tone from the gritty to the sensual or mind-warping.
Slowly, and especially in the West, the Southwest, the North, and the Northeast, cross-cultural tendencies gain in strength, fueled by the impotence of narrow nationalist politics in the face of generalized economic and ecological breakdown. Cultural collaboration and dialogue helps to crack the racial barriers here and there, as does common struggle over toxic dumps and other ecological concerns. The Green movement, now substantially composed of poor and working-class people, becomes the crucial site of cross-racial alliance, in genuinely grassroots groups like the Southwest Coalition for Environmental & Economic Justice headquartered in Tijuana, or Chicago's People for Community Renewal.
As the TNCs continue to shed workers, the marginal classes acquire many skilled engineers, programmers, and technicians. Media sabotage becomes, if not common, by no means infrequent: TV newscasts are overridden by guerrilla feeds that camouflage themselves with simulacra of the newscasters, sitcoms suddenly swerve into the horrific or the subversive, televangelists appear to spout anarchist rants or tear off their clothes on camera. Street demonstrations, riots, looting festivals, sit-ins, sickouts, and slowdowns multiply. Counter-terror begins: a slumlord shot in a drive-by, a homophobic demagogue executed on camera by "Queer Commandos," an executive beaten in the supposedly secure parking lot while the cameras are down.
THE NEW DIVIDE
Too little and too late, the elite starts to respond. Job-sharing plans (at reduced pay) are instituted. A guaranteed minimum income via "negative income tax" is established (but too little to live on). Health care is reformed -- again. Tough global restrictions on carbon emissions are reached. In a series of show trials, executives of some large polluters are actually sentenced to prison. Emergency farming and food distribution programs are created. Statutes against "hate crimes" are toughened.
Despite these modest achievements, Greens and progressives are unable to push through strong enough corporate-responsibility laws (and a renewal of civil-rights protections) because the Demopublican Right retains control of the Senate. The Federal government is increasingly paralyzed by continual infighting between these diehards and the more enlightened wing of the elite. Meanwhile, the acuteness of the deficit forces further massive cutbacks in Federal services, especially inspection and oversight, leading to further disasters.
In response, several Western states (Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico) pass corporate-responsibility laws, as do Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan in the Midwest, and Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and New York in the Northeast. Many corporations flee to unregulated states, especially in the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) and the Southeast (North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee). They do this rather than go abroad because most foreign options have become either too risky or uneconomic -- wages are too close to US norms, local infrastructure is inadequate, or production costs are too high.
Between these two main groups of states, political polarization grows rapidly. Corporate-driven governments in "Free-market" states encourage bigotry to prevent organizing; whites are racially mobilized via fundamentalist churches as well as local and regional media. "Fascist realism" becomes the dominant media style, including both pseudo-historical docudrama with racist and antisemitic themes and live audience-participation witch hunts against dissidents and queers. "Traditional values" -- capitalism, patriarchy, racial hierarchy, and mindless obedience -- saturate the informational environment. Countering the official media are clandestine ops and feeds, graffiti, posters, semi-underground concerts and poetry performances. Churches -- black Protestant in the South, Catholic in the Southwest -- also become crucial centers of opposition because of the legal protection still afforded them.
By contrast, governments in "Green" states are backed by coalitions of Green parties and local environmental issue groups, women's and gay groups, African-American and Latino organizations (though not the extreme-nationalist groups) and the remains of the unions. They are joined by "progressive" industrialists and businesspeople: credit unions and co-ops, recyclers, soft-energy entrepreneurs (solar engineers, windfarmers), bioengineers involved in earth-restoration projects, some computer companies, organic food producers and retailers. Public-access cable networks expand, rebroadcasting community-made ops and feeds. As neighborhood groups multiply, they create frequent street carnivals, with music, costumes, and masks, that invade downtown office buildings and other workplaces. There is spontaneous poetic oratory on street corners, often involving costume, sometimes electronic "special effects"; troubadours, rappers, and ranters circulate everywhere. Wild murals are painted on abandoned or squatted buildings. People begin making their own clothes and adding neoprimitivist or baroque ornamentation to their houses.
Both sets of states develop informal federative ties with each other, providing mutual aid of various sorts. Free-market states share databases of "subversives," organizers, and homosexuals and send police and National Guard reinforcements to each other as needed. A fascist coalition forms, subsidized by some of the TNCs, which provides financial aid to "conservatives" in Green states seeking to depose what they call "rosebud" (pink-and-green) majorities. In Green states, barter and other arrangements develop to deal with scarcities caused by corporate flight. There are modest low-interest development loans from better-off states to poorer ones. Neighborhood self-help and other grassroots groups dealing with housing, pollution, and education multiply and get coordinated across state lines, helped in some cases by radicals in local government.
Workers in Green states seize workplaces being shut down by fleeing corporations, initially to hold them to ransom, again often with the tacit or even open support of local government. Some of these workplaces -- light engineering and electronics plants, food production and distribution centers, and so on -- the workers begin operating themselves. Others are simply shut down as useless toxic pestholes. With the help of Green techies and some university engineering and science departments, the seized industrial facilities are converted so as to pollute less, conserve resources, and use alternative forms of energy -- as well as to be safer and more enjoyable to work in. Industrial planning networks form based on workplace committtees and city councils. In blighted urban centers, landscaping, rooftop and lot gardening, and bio-installation art become popular. Neighborhood repair shops and tool libraries spring up.
Now grassroots-led workplace takeovers and "Green bans" -- shutdowns of polluting or otherwise harmful workplaces -- accelerate. Bank workers and corporate clericals sabotage fund transfers and capital movements. A coalition of erstwhile corporate owners appeals to the Feds, who mobilize the National Guard in some Green states to take back the seized or closed facilities. There are mutinies and mass desertions after troops are ordered to fire on the workers and residents blockading the plants. The regular army is sent in and meets huge popular resistance. This mostly takes the form of mass unarmed demonstrations, but also involves sniper attacks as well as the usual jamming and disruption of communications.
Meanwhile, in Free-market states, opposition is growing. Green and black organizations, now semi-clandestine because of repression, make common cause with poor whites in and around chemical plants and oil refineries along the ultra-polluted Gulf coast. Green-state radicals send in clandestine organizers, technology (electronic gear, sabotage software), and funds to aid the opposition. In the old Black Belt, African-Americans form a huge coalition that stages armed counter-demonstrations against fascist attacks. There are bloody riots in several Southern cities that leave hundreds dead and large areas burnt to the ground. Strikes and boycotts begin to spread in spite of fierce repression. Death squads, led by "off-duty" police, wage all-out terror against black and brown organizations. Police HQ's are blown up in retaliation. Following an appeal by embattled Chicanos, thousands of armed Mexican workers march across the Texas border and engage in pitched battle with the police and the Guard. Martial law is declared across the South.Green state governments collapse as all Federal funds are cut off and state capitols are seized by armed Federal agents and airborne troops. The President, with a minimal Congressional majority, suspends the Constitution and attempts to put national martial-law plans into effect via FEMA, state militias, and crack counterinsurgency troops. Mass roundups of Green, worker, African-American, and Latino activists begin. Large demonstrations and strikes spread: the national economy is paralyzed as highways and rail lines are blockaded and airports closed. In Seattle, several hundred unarmed demonstrators including women and children are slaughtered. As word of the massacre spreads, many Army units desert; some go over to the rebel side. There are small-arms and tank battles in cities, with bitter house-to-house fighting.
The Revolutionary Democratic Federation (RDF) is formed from already existing regional councils of neighborhood, worker, and ethnically-based groups and planning bodies as well as the remains of local government. The Federation declares independence from the USA in about thirty states where it now controls production, communications and transportation and runs its own militias. The Federal government collapses as mass desertions from the military continue. A vast demonstrator-army of mostly black poor people sweeps into central DC and begins seizing and trashing government buildings. The President, top officials, and generals flee to Houston. The Free-market state regimes, most of which have been completely taken over by fascists, likewise collapse over the next few months after many thousands of deaths from violence, hunger, and disease -- as well as a reactor accident that leaves a large swath of Tennessee uninhabitable. The rebels, having seized power, affiliate with the RDF.
The USA is formally dissolved into the North American Democratic Federation. The new Federal government retains much of the Constitution minus the role of President, the Senate, and the Electoral College, but with all of the Bill of Rights, plus new amendments banning private (as opposed to cooperative) ownership of more than 40 acres of land, denying corporations the rights of persons, and making representatives subject to strict mandate and immediate recall by their elective bodies. The Federation also declares social ownership and citizen-worker management of all workplaces involving more than twenty people, including industry, telecommunications, and transportation (this law simply ratifies accomplished fact).
These legal measures are the tip of a huge iceberg of social transformation, especially around work. Few people spend more than twenty hours a week on their "job" (now called a Share, as in doing one's share); but there is strong social-ethical pressure on everyone able-bodied and -minded to do at least ten hours. New products (other than standardized components like screws and rivets, electrical and electronic gear, plumbing parts, and tools, whose production is as automated as possible) are now customized imaginatively by teams of makers who develop group stylistic signatures. Entrepreneurship is encouraged less by monetary reward than by public acclaim in competitions between work groups or cooperatives.
Money is used less and less as more goods and services, beginning with communications and basic foodstuffs, are distributed gratis to those who need them. Farmers' markets, barter-marts, and skill swaps are established everywhere. The banking, insurance, and advertising "industries" cease to exist. Now unused, most office towers and shopping malls are converted or demolished. Private automobiles are banned from cities, which are "villagized" by the breakup of all but a few large through streets and the burying of most public transit underground. Bicycles are now the most prevalent form of wheeled transport. Trees become a vital medium of space-shaping as well as objects of veneration.
Tract-home sprawl is gradually broken up as mid-range (suburban) population density is made illegal; some suburbs are demolished and plowed under for farmland, others are condensed into villages and small towns with their own centers and workplaces. Long-distance commuting becomes a rarity. Between cities, high-speed and local trains replace the automobile as the main means of transportation. Fossil-fuel burning is cut by two-thirds within five years, and the remaining gasoline-powered vehicles are subjected to strict CO2 emission control. Reforestation becomes a major social project, involving hundreds of thousands of mostly young people who do tours of duty in wilderness areas and in green belts around cities.
The tendency to regionalism becomes more marked, though TV, computers, and phones, as well as shared networks of basic industrial production, keep everyone connected. Regional and central broadcasting groups assemble and digest local news off satellite and cable feeds for rebroadcasting, and news databases make survey possible on any topic. Also, there are strong Federal laws about civil rights and ecological matters. New chemicals require years of rigorous testing in "artificial biospheres" before manufacture is allowed. Similar restrictions are made on genetic engineering, which is now mostly devoted to breeding bacteria and viruses to clean up toxic wastes, and to finding treatments for the still-spreading cancer and immune-failure epidemics the wastes have caused. Fertility drugs and surrogate motherhood are banned; any alteration of the human genome is subject to tight restriction, testing, and eventual Federal referendum (the elimination of genes for hemophilia, Downs, Alzheimer's, and some others are approved in this way).
As cities are reconstructed and transformed, poetic architecture begins to develop: people knock out back fences between houses to create open lawns and bamboo jungles, build covered bridges between apartment houses, create arbors, arcades, and tree-lined walks with sculptures. While private space does not disappear, it becomes more porous to the common life. Elaborate neighborhood games -- like ringolevio in Italian neighborhoods in Brooklyn -- provide opportunities for courtship, friendly rivalry, and adventurous encounter. The new public spaces also foster music and performance festivals, like the old Welsh Eisteddfodd, involving complex poetic improvisation around agreed themes and styles, but often also making use of computer and VR technology.
Public and group ritual becomes frequent again for all sorts of occasions. There are rites of passage for traditional occasions like birth, death, coming to maturity, sexual partnership, and for new ones like joining a work group, a neighborhood, or some other cluster, as well as for "breaking up" or departure. Seasonal festivals like Christmas-Chanukah-Solstice become communal celebrations of the year's turning.
The new world is far from perfect. Society must contend with the hideous social and ecological legacy of the corporate-oligarchic era: chronic agricultural shortages and unpredictable weather because of the Greenhouse Effect; a much reduced average life expectancy for the next two generations owing to cancer and other environmentally induced disease; residual racial hatred, misogyny, and homophobia; and a less obvious but also terrible heritage of "post-traumatic" syndromes including anxiety neurosis, psychosis, and drug addiction. There are still (though far fewer) murders, crimes of passion, assaults, rapes, and even robberies. But there is far less social stimulus to such behavior, and -- despite greatly reduced governmental intervention in daily life -- much less tolerance for it. A face-to-face-based, communal society can deal with these things much better before they get out of hand.
In general, then, the women and men of the mid-twenty-first century in what used to be the United States are both kinder and hardier than those of a century earlier. They are imaginative, playful, sarcastic, egalitarian, multi-skilled, intense in concentration and pride in their work, quick to sympathize and help, eloquent and fierce in debate, rooted in community and region but prone to switch occupations suddenly and to become migrants in middle life. They share, besides, a bittersweet appreciation of passing beauty fostered by the ever-presence of death and loss, and a passionate love of the life-web that sustains them and that they must now steward if they are to survive.
Poetry in Processed World issue 32.
HAITIS IN RUSH HOUR
The coast guard says it is continuing to search
For more Haitians in the water,
Said the national public radio.
Fish and hatefodder,
Swimming without gills,
Stuffed with the starch of our perceptions
Their eyes yellowed and moonstruck
By the glare of our national eye;
We turn heads into lost cemetery numbers
Frenzies of swollen and salted eyes,
Festering in oceanic fear
The U.S. is a jerk of the knee and heart,
A baffling leap of mind.
Good Night, Macneil-Lehrer,
Fade out and faint out
Into suppertime America
Little Haitians, though, little Haitian-things
Scurrying across the dinner table like lice
Seeking asylum in the warmth of mashed potatoes,
Jockeying for sympathy amongst the peas,
Sucking the blood from my London Broil.
Those Haitians and those Cubans.
During the lunch hour, I am gliding
Along the silvery sheen of escalators
Soaring in the grandiose public eye of Washington,
Catapulting me onward toward the presidency.
The sheen of perfume credit card and shopping bag expense,
Of careers and responsibility,
Shimmering at me through resume eyes,
glittering from American Expressed Honolulu Vacations..
I felt very presidential today,
Striding majestically into the break room,
Doing my multi-tasks with style;
Held a press conference at the Coffee Urn at noon,
To outline my strategies for peace in the Middle East
and Eastern Europe,
And for a New American Order.
What was Bush doing meeting with the pope on a day like today?
His sidekick, career lapdog Eagle-burgher
With the blood-enraptured Serbs and Croats:
Crazy fat Greeks and scowling empire Turks
Stuck somewhere in between,
They are fired up Mongrels,
Dirty and unreasonable,
So many tribes to worry about,
Those Serbs and those Croats
Building little empires, killing little people,
Just a little bit bigger
Than the flailing Haitians
Of miasma overpopulation nightmares
(Detention and detonation are similar worlds);
Silent oh-zone seethes away
Like a hissing snake,
Microwaving fields of cancerous corn and cattle
and Miami, Florida early retirement deaths.
The news today seemed more burdensomed
Than the average toll of deaths and insults
Probably because I listened to it all day long
Everybody kept killing everybody else
Over and over again.
In my carpeted downtown makework office,
Afternoon time pours on
Lunch sifting through the veins.
Everything here sticks to you:
Cremora and Winston-salem on the throat and lung
A veritable swamp down there these days,
But who is worrying?
Oh!-Zone seeps and pushes through late afternoon,
Presiding in giant silence
Over the clattering of mega-bites;
It lurks and sulks behind the timeless questions,
Which is worse, anyway,
A broken law
Or a broken heart?
The horrifying bath of bloodwater death
In the Phillipines
Makes poetry obsolete.
You should not listen to the news all day
The dead can really get to you.
I wonder if they have found any more Haitians
Writhing in midnight nets
Amongst the starkist tunas.
Somebody ought to sift them out
From the slithering pile,
They make for good laborers.
It is nice to get a paycheck on a Friday.
the division of infinite space / conferring
the mind's childhood what will be endurance
war on the subject museum of future tense OUT
of language acquisition
as you like / or a way that an infant relates
fixed to itself sexually exiting, leaves the walls
"The birds are drunk again
Speaking their own language" (Laura Moriarty)
all air is up for grabs
the need to know it now: field empty
to find the culprit / water's up front
the enemy, another front wrong way
do not enter ( this is a note to myself )
to remind myself that I'm here ( war of the roses )
I'm trying to translate the DNA / technical forces / the demand for novelty
to exploit the new, the new has no historical baggage
old lovers, ripe flesh "It's this passion which one
could call white,"
( Anne-Marie Albiach )
DON'T JUST STAND THERE, SELL SOMETHING
Bring all the blood you got and if it's not enough
We'll make some.
Afternoon of another damn writer in a bad mood.
Don't these weenies ever lighten up?
Late into the night a grad student schemes
On how to increase the market share of poetry.
Imagine a board meeting at which an exec says
I think a little tastefully-done Dadaist image
Might serve us well here, open new markets.
— by David Fox
The Pyramid and the Tree
Adam Cornford on thought and metaphors of pyramids and trees.
We think in metaphors. All abstractions (including the word "abstraction") derive from terms for concrete experiences. Thought is a vast coral, whose "worms" are living metaphors and whose reef is composed of dead ones. As different corals have different characteristic shapes, so various areas of our thinking are dominated by certain meta-metaphors or metaphoric structures. For instance, in their study More Than Cool Reason, George Lakoff and Mark Turner show how our thinking about time is structured by the metaphor of the journey. The structuring goes so deep in our consciousness that it is almost impossible to talk about time without invoking the journey metaphor in one way or another. (Try it.)
Since they are mainly concerned with language as such, Lakoff and Turner demonstrate this metaphoric structuring by recourse to the dead and dying tropes buried in everyday speech. But I contend that metaphoric structuring extends beyond the word into all our signifying activity. Some of the most basic meta-metaphors may in fact be partly "hardwired" in our brains out of our evolutionary history as primates or as mammals_since land mammals demonstrably share a language of facial and bodily expression, of which "primate" is a dialect. Nevertheless, just as we can resist our predisposition to behave like chimpanzees even though we are genetically almost identical to them, so we may shift even these hypothetical "deep structures" toward new ones that better fit our experience and understanding. Such a shift is what I now propose_or rather, as it has already begun to take place, it is what I intend to foreground and clarify.
Ever since the growth of patriarchy, caste, and class out of settled agriculture millennia ago, hierarchy has been as central to thought as it has to social organization. To begin with, all individuals in a society must be ranked. This ranking is carried out along multiple and overlapping axes: gender (and possession of certain gendered characteristics); wealth (and how long one's family has possessed it); occupation (or hereditary occupational caste); skin tone (or other racial markers); regional origin; tribal or religious affiliation; and so forth. Entire societies must be ranked as well: by size of social unit, military prowess or aggressiveness, degree of urbanization or mechanization, use of literacy or mathematics_or again by type of religious belief.
Civilized thought has typically inserted this social and intersocial hierarchy into a natural or cosmic one: the "Great Chain of Being." At one end of this chain are the gods or God. Next in rank are the spirits of the air, dragons, devas, or angels. A few links further back are human beings_or rather, Man, to whom Woman is subordinated. The next links are the mammals and birds, followed by the reptiles, the fish, the insects and other arthropods, the plants, and finally the rocks and minerals. The reasons for this projection of social hierarchy onto the cosmos are all too obvious. As Marx long ago pointed out, every dominant class inscribes its domination into the image of nature; and for this to be possible, the principle of hierarchy must itself be unquestioned natural law.
Both social and cosmic hierarchies have traditionally been figured as verticality. Since there are typically fewer individuals at each level of society as one "ascends," the Pyramid is the "natural" trope for both. (The independent occurrence of the pyramid in the sacred architecture of Egypt, India, and the Americas is suggestive.) In what must be one of the most ancient versions of this image, the Hindu, the pyramidal hierarchy is also a map for the journey of the soul, which must progress by way of successive incarnations from the "lowest" level to the "highest," up through the layers of species and caste, to be reunited with the Divine. In the scholastic cosmogony derived from Aristotle that dominated medieval European thinking, the cosmic pyramid existed as real physical space, with God at its apex (and everywhere else), and the orders of Creation ranked below in tier upon tier according to the ratio of "noble" or "base" elements that composed them. Dante, in fact, imagined Hell as the inverted mirror-image of this pyramid, an infernal counter-hierarchy beneath the lowest levels of Creation itself.
More than two centuries after the founding of American democracy, social hierarchy is still with us, and with a vengeance. Its principal and closely interlinked forms in wealthy countries are economic class (often figured as the "income pyramid"); a modified patriarchy that depends increasingly on the distribution of gendered behaviors rather than on biological sex; and institutional racism, again tending toward a continuous ranking of behaviors (and skin tone) rather than a binary division into white and nonwhite. Beyond our borders, nations and regions are stacked chiefly according to their "level of development": that is, their degree of integration into the capitalist world system as producers and consumers according to indicators like GNP and average money income. Like the soul in Hinduism, these nations are supposed to ascend the development pyramid until they achieve the blissful samadhi enjoyed by the US, Western Europe, and Japan. Unfortunately, the income-development pyramid is more like those built by the Aztecs. Many of those who climb it do so only have their hearts cut out as a sacrifice to Capital by the transnational priests at the summit. And, like the pyramids of Egypt, this pyramid is built by forced labor and sits in a conceptual desert_"nature" as resources to be exploited_which is fast becoming a literal one.
Not surprisingly, hierarchical metaphor persists in all areas of our signification. Most religions, of course, are resolutely hierarchical in their image of the world. But science too remains under the sway (see what I mean?) of these metaphors, despite recent criticism of such thinking from within the scientific community. For example, physicists still commonly talk about the scale of physical reality in terms of "levels"_the galactic level, the molecular level, the atomic level, the quantum (or "subatomic") level, and so on. And while most biologists now formally reject the notion of evolution as linear "progress" from "lower" to "higher" forms, the image of Life as an Aristotelian hierarchy of species lingers on in textbook illustrations and popular thinking: a pyramid with Homo Sapiens at the top and viruses at the bottom. Even ecologists still habitually talk of pollutants returning "up the food chain" from, say, plants to humans "at the top."In some respects, these hierarchical images have more substance than ever before. Technology has, it seems, fulfilled the Sky-Father's promise in Genesis and given Man dominion over nature. He now possesses the means to affect the cosmic pyramid at all levels from the planetary on down: he can create as well as destroy biological species, design molecules that will do almost anything, and release the energy of the atomic nucleus. But while mechanized society can wipe out or transform whole ecosystems almost instantaneously, it has little understanding of, or control over, the consequences of these actions. By virtually eliminating one species with pesticides, for instance, farmers may trigger a population surge in another. Antibiotics depress the population of a bacterium only to let it return in a new drug-resistant form. Air conditioners and refrigerators shield us and our food from the effects of warm weather; but the chemicals they use are destroying the ozone layer and exposing us to more damaging radiation. As many people now realize, civilized, mechanized Man's position at the top of the pyramid is getting shaky.
Here and there, societies still exist in which there is little or no social hierarchy. They may well contain leaders or other individuals whose experience is uniquely respected, and who are consequently deferred to in their realm of knowledge; but these individuals hold no absolute authority. Nor is there much economic stratification: no-one "employs" anyone else, and sharing is the norm. In some of these "primitive" societies, even male dominance is muted if not altogether absent. Far from being mere passive hunter-gatherers, such peoples have stewarded the ecosystems around them very effectively (by controlled burnoffs of underbrush, selective planting, and other forms of silviculture). They do not as a rule see themselves as superior to animals or plants; they regard them as fellow-beings, to be communicated with and learned from as well as made use of. Yet, as Marshall Sahlins has shown, they often live in abundance, spending far less time on material survival than civilized people do.
We cannot return to the way of life these peoples practice, if only because it will not support even a small fraction of the human beings now alive. Yet its very existence demonstrates that social hierarchy is not "natural" to human beings (any more than equality is); that a dialogic or collaborative relationship with non-human nature is possible, one that depends neither on dominative "management" nor on timorous passivity; and that abundant life is denied the vast majority in favor of an artificial scarcity meant to force them to work for money. I believe, along with many others in the worldwide ecology movement, that we must find larger-scale equivalents to the achievements of small "primitive" societies. We must create forms of social organization and technology that allow billions of people to live sustainably in reasonable comfort_and with far more free time and far greater collective control over their own lives than any but the very rich now possess. Otherwise, the pyramids will collapse on top of us as their basis, relentlessly exploited human and non-human nature, either rebels or rots.
Such massive changes will clearly not occur without an equally massive change in the outlook and priorities of many millions of people. The movement will not bring this about solely by rational argument; for such argument in and of itself treats language, in unreconstructed Enlightenment fashion, as a transparent, neutral medium of communication between monadic individuals. (Nor, at the other extreme, will the movement triumph by emotional and moral appeals that motivate people primarily through fear or guilt, since these wear out fast and are followed by numbness.) We must be effective also at the preconscious linguistic level where poets (and ad-makers, alas) work: shifting people's perceptual frames by changing symbolism, connotation, master narrative_and master trope.
I began this essay by asserting that we think in metaphors, and that deep metaphoric structures organize whole areas of experience. I see signs that these structures are changing, in ways that may prefigure social, political, and cultural transformation. I would like to intervene in the process by bringing forward what may be a new organizing metaphor for our experience of collective (social and biospheric) life, one that replaces the Pyramid image derived from thousands of years of hierarchical domination. This metaphor is the Tree. I like this metaphor first of all because of its literal, material value. As many people know by now, the reproduction of life on earth depends on trees, and especially on the tropical rain forests. If we are even to arrest the trend to global warming via the greenhouse effect, we will need not only to save what is left of the forests but to plant vast new ones. And these forests must not simply be tree farms for transnational corporations (or oxygen farms for a "Green" technocracy). They must be what all old-growth forests are: reservoirs of biodiversity, crucibles of evolution, and labyrinths of wildness and beauty. A reverence for trees_not just metaphorical trees but real, living ones that exist before any word that can name them_such reverence is now a survival requirement for our species. For this reason alone it is appropriate that we begin conceiving of our life in terms of the Tree.
Of course tree-symbolism is ancient and various, from the Trees of Life and Knowledge in Eden to the Norse World-Tree Yggdrasil. Particular tree species have been sacred, too, in many cultures. How could it be otherwise? But new tree-metaphors seem to be emerging. At the most mundane level, the new information technologies seem particularly disposed to tree-imagery: the homely phone tree for spreading information; the branching file tree of the computer operating system, whose primary directory is often called "root"; the decision tree (or decision forest) of expert systems and "intelligent" programming languages. True, in these fields, the Net (as in data communications networks, neural network computing, and so on, is a contender for the organizing metaphor. I prefer the Tree, not only for the reasons already given, but because the Tree suggests a common center, a shared support to which all the other elements contribute and by which they are nourished in turn_and also a vertical as well as horizontal aspiration. Besides, the Net seems to be an emergent ideological image for the revamping of large "progressive" corporations, which are seeking to become less rigidly top-down in their day-to-day decision making without in any way altering the ultra-hierarchical context in which they operate. This is probably appropriate, given that the most netlike organisms on earth are slime molds.Let me offer some further, more speculative examples. (To begin with, perhaps I should offer this essay itself as a tree, open-ended, growing in several directions at once. And so I ask for poetic license. The word in prose tends to be a pyramid, in which broad associative potential converges into the pointed precision of denotation; the word in poetry is more like a tree, branching connotatively from the signification the reader/hearer initially gives it into a leaf-play of suggested meaning.)
To return to our starting-point, society: Instead of the hierarchical pyramid of national-regional-local government, with the individual (read "dirt") at the bottom, imagine a tree-polity: a polycentric democracy, whose trunk is the largest scale of the demos or consciously organized people, whose interwoven and tapering branches are ever more local and specialized decision-making bodies, and whose leaves are possibilities for individual choice and self-development.
For this to be possible, the income and GNP pyramids must be replaced by a worldwide tree-economy. The trunk this time can be seen as democratic planning for the common social and ecological good_or as everything that needs to be organized, produced, and distributed in standardized form and at a global level. The branches taper to increasingly local orders of production/distribution and shared good, on the principle of maximum comfortable and sustainable self-sufficiency in each order. The roots of this tree, of course, are in the literal earth_not set down on it but growing out of it. And the leaves, fed by the tree and feeding it, are the millions of individuals who, freed from the stupid struggle for survival imposed by engineered scarcity, can contribute their imaginative energies to the common life.
The kind of political organization_or rather, organized process_that might bring this about must also be treelike. The standard form of all modern political parties is pyramidal, from the layers of careerists, technocrats, and hacks in the typical "party of government" to the Leninist revolutionary vanguard with its cell-and-committee structure. Radially (radically) rooted in diversity, our party should converge in a common program and overall strategy only to branch out again into countless local and finally individual initiatives.
Yet the individual psyche itself is, traditionally, another hierarchy_intellect at the summit ruling the ranked passions, which in turn dominate the body. More recent versions include the triadic Freudian pyramid of Superego-Ego-Id and Jung's famous "old house" from Memories, Dreams, Reflections: a temporal hierarchy with the modern bourgeois furniture of the conscious mind on the top floor, the old-fashioned decor of the personal and cultural unconscious one floor down, and the ancient stones and bones of the collective unconscious in the basement. Broadly, in the "Western" view, the monadic, unified Subject or Self is the uppermost pinnacle, both as ideal to be striven for (whether through education or psychoanalysis) and as daylit convergence of the dark forces of history and desire.
To this I would like to oppose the human tree-being we may call the "multividual"_a body of experience rooted, certainly, in biography (the topsoil of history) but through which desire travels like sap to nourish a branching plurality of personae, some of which may then drop their own roots. What is pathological in "Multiple Personality Syndrome" is not multiplicity, but the traumatic origin of the personalities, and their resultant "freezing" into quasi-autonomous, mutually unaware pseudo-selves. Each of us shows our Selves capable of this same furious creativity as we move through the various roles we must play every day. Most of these roles, in the existing society, are admittedly banal: employee, workmate, shopper, viewer, voter, taxpayer, fan. But imagine, in a communal, democratic, polycentric society_one that realizes all the desires historically signified by Carnival_all the yous you could be. In short, each of us is already a humangrove, stunted by the poor social terrain we presently occupy but capable of fabulous efflorescence.
It may be that what we call the Divine is only the psyche writ cosmically large_or perhaps, a dream-diagram of the relationship between the human and the inhuman as a particular culture experiences it. The God of Moses, a Sky-Father reconceived as an unimaginable sum of superlatives, gave us (through the Book) the fire-gift of abstraction, and allowed us to dethrone the cruel idols of Nature. But the price paid has been enormous. The Almighty has brought us endless inquisitions and jihads. Because He was composed of abstractions to begin with, the Enlightenment was able to dethrone Him partially and replace Him with Reason. But the Reason-God has brought us the disenchantment of the world, the Cartesian schism of the human being into lonely subjectivity and mechanical objectivity. In a final irony, we are now actually ruled by the materialization of this alienated Reason as transnational Capital, an uncontrollable Demiurge that moves over the face of the planet, transforming or destroying regional economies and ecosystems as it "wills." At the end of the twentieth century, no matter what our official religion, our true God is the detached, floating eye-pinnacle of the pyramid on the back side of the dollar.
The only image of the Divine I can respect is the Tree. The ecological perspective understands each life_and the very air and water_as at once dependent on and contributive to Life. The Tree, though, is not only a metonymy of the global life-process, but an image of the resolution of the old argument between monotheism and polytheism. "Aspect theologies," like those of Hinduism and some African religions, which view the Divine as One yet many-faceted, of course offer versions of this. If these religions still seem too hierarchical for my taste, they nonetheless suggest a God-tree, whose countless leaf-faces are beings and whose trunk is Being.
But perhaps the Tree is also a way of imaging the relationship between Being and Becoming. Some physicists now conceive space-time as a four-dimensional tree, its root the original cosmic explosion, branching at every instant of quantum uncertainty into new universes. Some of these may last only fractions of a second; others may become whole new timelines, not "parallel" but radiant, interwoven worlds of possibility-reality: the tree of Alternity. In this tree nest all the gods, including us.
I, all of I, believe in the Tree; I are, have, will, live (in) the Tree.
The Shape of Truth to Come: New Media & Knowledge
Chris Carlsson on new media and networking technology, in 1994.
Everything we know about entertainment and the forms it takes as "product" is up for grabs. The categories that seem so "natural" to us like TV, radio, albums, books, magazines, movies, videos, are rapidly converging into one large digital data stream. Those earlier forms won't completely disappear, but all will be altered by their new interchangeability as data, and new combinations will become common. Central to this process is the convergence of changes in form and delivery system, from the much-touted arrival of "interactive" media to the frenzy of corporate and legal deal-making regarding the delivery of digital signals to your home or business via phone and/or cable.
Beneath the media world lies our perceptual framework, and with the new media may come new ways of knowing what we know. How did our sense of life and society change at earlier times of upheaval in "communications technology," like in the transition from oral to literate cultures? Literacy certainly contributed to the downfall of many a dictator and monarch, but it also brought with it certain assumptions that strongly influence our imaginations. Marshall McLuhan argued that the subtle effects of the medium of knowing influences what we can know. Knowledge, when constructed from "straight rows of exactly repeatable, individually meaningless units of type, is an amazingly close analogue of, and perhaps the model for, the specialized industrial society in which an entire economy is assembled out of small bits of individually owned private property --including intellectual property."1
Any metaphor can be taken too literally, but clearly something as invisibly "natural" as the alphabet imparts deep assumptions about how the world around us is structured, or more accurately, how we humans structure that world. Anyway, the subversive possibilities of literacy per se have long ago exhausted themselves. Seeing the world through literate eyes, as a large part of the world's population does, has not in itself led to a richly engaged and informed public, even though books and information are relatively easy to acquire. Literacy provided the "operating system" and the logic for the advanced developments in communications technology by establishing the basis for a technologized culture and by shaping our conception of knowledge. The simple truth no longer holds the same weight as it once did, and it never seems "simple."
The critical consciousness of an active literate (still pretty rare, after all) has been outflanked by the active shaping of "reality" by mass media. Of course there could be no TV without literacy, but the represented world of television, reinforced by radio and newspapers, establishes and shapes reality in ways that the printed word only aspired to, but could never achieve alone. After centuries of gradually expanding literacy and nearly a hundred years of public schooling, our minds have been shaped to believe what we see. As photography, film and TV became commonplace, our "natural" instinct to believe what we see created a society perfectly suited to "blind" allegiance to a carefully manufactured "reality" of images. The roots of this manipulability are clearly visible in the successes of yellow (print) journalism around the turn of the century before the arrival of the "more real" radio or TV.
If the demise of the Soviet empire heralds the end of the 20th century, it also marks the victory of the system of order advanced in the U.S. and pockets throughout the world, a system called the "integrated spectacle" by the French Situationist writer Guy Debord:
"The society whose modernization has reached the stage of the integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal features: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present... Once one controls the mechanism which operates the only form of social verification to be fully and universally recognized, one can say what one likes. The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed, and believed, precisely because that is the only thing to which everyone is witness. Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once, or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte, in its own space or any other."2
PREDATORY PRUNING IN THE CORPORATE GARDEN
Corporate giants have recently been observed tying the knot in frenzied cross-industry deals, getting married to stake a claim in the much-anticipated "new media universe" (I'll just call it media-verse). The old TV networks, Microsoft, IBM and Apple, TCI and Time Warner, the New York Times and USA Today, the baby Bells and AT&T, QVC and the Home Shopping Network, not to mention all the smaller local interests, have all joined the battle. Vast fortunes will be wasted and a few will survive and grow. And when the dust clears there should be, according to all the analysts, a media industry straddling the globe comparable to the mid-20th century auto and oil giants.3
As media giants compete across the planet to control the airwaves, the univocal, self-referential spectacular society will have to change its spots. While we watch and throw an occasional stone, the system will try to exploit regional differences even while promoting a new less Euro- or Yankee-centric "objectivity". CNN against ABC against BBC against TV GLOBO against NHK, etc. will supposedly demonstrate the "freedom of the airwaves." Competition will be emphasized to obscure the essential sameness and increasingly homogenized package of modern life, a package which is paradoxically very different from the lives of most people.
We can expect the approaching international network television system to promote a new global citizenship. How shall we counter this bogus citizenship, this pathetic acquiescence to a corporate agenda? What would an anti-capitalist, positive and humane version of such "citizenship" consist of in the post-modern world? Can "global citizen," or "international proletarian," or any new global identity arise to undermine the untrammeled power of multinational capital? Multinational corporations will spend billions to define a "desirable" way of life, ideologically reinforcing "globalism" the same way national capital has historically reinforced nationalism. Global broadcasting will surely intensify the already advanced process of creeping monoculture, leading to the final airport-ization and enclave-ization of reality for the haves, while the have-nots remain unseen and unnoticed, except as panhandlers and occasional rioters.
They'll try to get us to pay for this new media-verse, too. Unless we can revolutionize how we use these technologies_along with the society we create together_they'll invent yet another payment scheme: by the minute, by the product, by the digital size (KBs), subscriptions and access fees, TV-shopping taxes, there are so many possibilities! We can't play unless we pay, as usual, unless the easy duplicability of digital information finally destroys all attempts at ownership and payment schemes.
It is possible that our certainty of the private origin and rightful ownership of ideas will erode as we freely access bits of many writings through new electronic libraries. Someday we'll know that the global reservoir of scientific and technical knowledge belongs to everyone equally, since it is a product of the complex web of human history. Doug Brent argues that:
"The metaphorical meaning of print technology is isolation, not communality. In particular, the ability to claim one's particular share of the intertextual web, and stamp it with one's own name_an ability made possible by the same printing press that made widespread cumulation of knowledge possible as well_suggests that knowledge is individually owned. I believe that computer mediated communication provides a totally different metaphorical message...that takes theories of collaborative knowledge and ... stamps them indelibly in the consciousness of the entire society... With electronic communication the notion of the static and individually owned text dissolves back into the communally performed fluidity of the oral culture... Document assembly becomes analogous to the oral poet boilerplating stock phrases and epithets into familiar plots... it becomes obvious that originality lies not so much in the individual creation of elements as in the performance of the whole composition."4
ORALITY & LITERACY
"Oral, non-literate cultures are 'verbomotor' cultures in which, by contrast with high-technology cultures, courses of action and attitudes toward issues depend significantly more on effective use of words, and thus on human interaction, and significantly less on non-verbal, often largely visual input from the 'objective' world of things... Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates." --Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, (Routledge: 1982)
Imagine life without books, magazines, packaging, signs, TV, radio, boomboxes, et al. Kind of hard, isn't it? What was "in" the pre-literate mind? How did it construct knowledge? What did it make of time and space?
Before writing and before alphabets, human society depended entirely on speech and song to establish and maintain knowledge, often in the form of lengthy, elaborate sagas. Ong argues that in oral societies, knowledge wasn't owned, it was performed. "Without print, knowledge must be stored not as a set of abstract ideas or isolated bits of information, but as a set of concepts embedded deeply in the language and culture of the people."5 Oral cultures strive to conserve knowledge, largely through the repetition of elaborate allegorical tales with stock phrases and communally recognized characters, roles and concepts (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are examples). With no place to turn to "look something up," humans depended on wise individuals, often the elders who had years to develop and polish their story-telling skills, to maintain and transmit what was known.
Intellectual experimentation was distrusted, since the important goal was to preserve what was known rather than trying to challenge and undermine it with new ideas. The oral society maintained a heightened awareness and focus on what we call the "present." Changes in life were reflected in changing episodes in known stories. What was remembered gradually and seamlessly changed to meet new situations.
Accompanying the move from an oral to a literate human culture is the demotion of sound as the primary medium for experiencing knowledge. Sound, whether voice or ambient noise or music, surrounds you in a way visual input doesn't. As thinking about something written becomes more common, fragmentation of consciousness, specialization and complex analysis, become possible in ways that aren't in oral societies.
The "natural" separation between knowledge and the knower which permeates our literate, technologized culture, couldn't even have occurred to an intelligent, "well-educated" mind in a pre-literate society. Learning, understanding and wisdom were by definition socially developed and shared_thoughts and wisdom only existed as sound, disappearing as soon as uttered unless repeated. Oral people didn't have a sense of time like we accept today. There were seasons and weather and most cultures had holidays during the various times of year, but there weren't dates, hours, clocks, and so on.6
Literacy made it possible to record thoughts, examine, debate and revise them, which soon gave greater power to the masters of the newly technologized word. Among the earliest uses of writing was to control legal codes and to account for business. As market relations inexorably spread through imperial conquest and subjugation, literacy went along, too. Literacy, based on visual linearity, after centuries has narrowed what we value as knowledge, and hence what we experience. Even though we have more and deeper knowledge about the world than pre-literate, oral cultures, our civilization is astonishingly barbaric. The everyday communality and ability to live much more cooperatively, present in many oral societies, would be a welcome antidote to the isolation and anomie of modern daily life.
INTERACTIVITY TO THE RESCUE?
Interactive entertainment is a glorified system of multiple choice. The new hype about interactivity suggests certain appetites or consumer demands are being felt. Now, all-new interactive entertainment comes along to assuage the loneliness of modern life, but actually ends up reinforcing it! Capitalist society brutalizes itself with the fear and doubt of "economic necessity." People react by becoming more machine-like. Interactivity promises to give you what you've lost as you found your place in society. You and those around you are bored and boring, but interactive entertainment will let you control beautiful people doing beautiful things, with no backtalk or guff.
I admit I was intrigued at first. But it was hard to imagine a finely-tuned, labor-intensive creative product with gaping holes left for a naive user to come in and add whatever they wanted. Sure enough, existing interactive CD-ROM products are either encyclopedic databases with photos, text and occasional videoclips, or they are elaborate games with numerous hidden clues and buttons that you must overcome to get to the next level or scene. Todd Rundgren is among a smattering of musicians who are publishing music CDs with uses from straight-ahead listening to mix-and-match your own tune with provided elements.
Will the rise of "interactive" TV mean more toggling, more pulp fiction, more brain-dead hours of "entertainment?" Are there really a bunch of people out there who want to do a lot more than just switch channels until they find something they can "veg out" in front of? Interactive programming will have to be able to deliver specific consumer market segments to advertisers, of course. Interactivity and artificial environments ("virtual reality") will attract a share of the entertainment consumer dollar. How much depends on what the experience can really deliver. If it ends up being a wax-museum trip through Polygon Hell, it will never catch on. But if you can "attend" various historic moments, places, events, and "be there" in true 360 degrees live animation, that could be pretty addictive.7
Some boosters argue that interactive programs can stimulate a renaissance in education, overcoming the archaic forms of learning still relied on in most schools. A great deal of public school is really awful, so it's easy to imagine a new series of techno-fixes being well-received by students and faculty. But the issues of education go a lot deeper (see Processed World 31).
Interactive entertainment is a hollow promise. Entertainment is bad enough already, but to structure it so you have to work to enjoy it_forget it! True interactivity is what can happen between human beings, genuine subjects, individuals with the unique quality of being able to find a near-infinite range of responses to any situation, as well as the ability to imagine completely new possibilities not yet anticipated. Any interactive program or game today is a closed loop in which all the possibilities have been thought of and planned for; your "job" is to try to gain access to them. With a "friendly" interface, your work seems like play, and the time computing seems really fun and just a big game after all. But the interaction, or interactivity, is the means to personalize and enhance your participation in image consumption. By providing limited choices, interactivity mimics the false control offered over work by self-management and workers' participation schemes, wherein workers decide how to accomplish the business' mission, but, crucially, not what the mission is.
The free communication spaces that we have now (e.g. Internet, public access TV, etc.) are already overwhelmingly uninteresting. Human community ("interactivity") is already extremely weak. The whole notion of public opinion has turned into an easily manipulated series of statistical non-sequiturs. "Unanswerable lies have succeeded in eliminating public opinion, which first lost the ability to make itself heard and then very quickly dissolved altogether." (Debord)
The wide expansion of channels and bandwidths along with easy, cheap two-way and conferencing capabilities could promote horizontal communication in ways that undercut the univocal, self-referential voice of the dominant society. But the Spectacle could also continue to absorb every social expression and movement into its underlying logic of buying and selling. The advent of TV shopping and online services expands the reach of market relations a notch or two further. Perhaps the loss of public space has driven the dreamers into cyberspace, with the only thriving "public" communities existing on bulletin boards, hence the enthusiasm for new media in projects of social liberation. But what about the large majority of the population that has simply been closed out of any contact with this world?
RECONNECTING THE CIRCUITS
"In this world which is officially so respectful of economic necessities, no one ever knows the real cost of anything which is produced. In fact the major part of the real cost is never calculated; and the rest is kept secret." [Debord]
Dissenting views are virtually invisible in mainstream America. Broadcast television, malls and airports comprise "public space" for most people, and have produced a life where "...images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individual's principal connection to the world he formerly observed for himself...[it is] a concrete experience of permanent submission." [Debord] This submissive way of life needs us to doubt the reality of our own experiences. It feeds on that doubt and constantly reassures us that the representation of life is "more real" than life itself.
If you doubt the existence of the Spectacular society, why is immediate, lived experience routinely dismissed by millions when it diverges too far from the official, received story? For example, the sustaining energy of the anti-Gulf War demonstrations in U.S. cities was in part drained by trivializing, limited media coverage. 100,000 San Francisco anti-war protesters were just another "opinion" alongside 300 pro-war protesters in the 'burbs. The great power of living through such a large demonstration became hard to believe when it was not reinforced in the "real" public sphere, TV.
In keeping a profligate consumer society based on increasingly sharp class divisions and falling living standards from im- or exploding, the worldmakers have a difficult task. They must allow a decentralization in spectacle maintenance. They have to assume that the principles of spectacular society (mistrust of one's own experience, suspicion of other people's motives, belief in the bald-faced lies of the rulers, loneliness, resignation, and atomization) are so thoroughly internalized that most people will go on reproducing it independently of any real central control.
New media tools like "morphing" and photo manipulation software have drastically eroded verifiability through images8. The ability to manipulate consciousness and the appearance of reality has eroded with the loss of image believability. The development of interactivity is an attempt to outflank the increasing emptiness of media consumption. More importantly, new media seek to perpetuate the form of media commodity against an exploding world of direct, horizontal, free communication.
In an echo of pre-literate times, we are must rely on our direct sense of who or what is telling us the "truth," since pictures are no longer proof of anything. Face-to-face (or perhaps node-to-node) experience and communication is the only way to arrive at an honest public sense of reality.
E-mail and electronic discussion groups are bringing together new communities around shared ideas and interests, but still very isolated. The millions of Internet users are mostly very alone as they "communicate" and it's very difficult to see how the "information" shared makes it back into a meaningful role in shaping human society. In this Solitaire Society, everyone does everything alone, even though occasionally in the company of thousands of others.
Finally, this is what we face: to take the disparate strands of knowledge, culture and meaning that we develop in our electronic activities (and elsewhere) and give them a life in the physical and political world. We must remove the constraints of isolation imposed by our "interactive solitude" and make all aspects of our lives meaningfully interactive, so that we are forevermore the subject and creator of our own destinies! The threads of subversion we weave so quietly today must find their way to smother the self-destructive, brutal and dehumanizing life we actually live when we are at work, on the go, at school, and in the streets. The trust we place in electronic links must again find a common home among our social links, until electronic "experiences" take their rightful place as occasional supplements to a rich, varied human life.
1(paraphrased nicely by Doug Brent in Intertek 3.4 "Speculations on the History of Ownership," originally published in EJournal and not copywrited!)
2 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso, London: 1990
3 The maneuvering currently underway is reminiscent of the corporate conspiracy in the '40s and '50s to scuttle intracity urban rail systems when a cabal of General Motors, Firestone Tires, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Truck and Standard Oil of Ohio bought up rail systems and "modernized" city transit systems by ripping out the tracks and replacing the trains with busses. The real goal was to get people off public transit and into private cars, a plan which worked pretty well, unfortunately. But much more is now at stake. The manufacture and maintenance of the images of global reality may be even more powerful than the establishment and control of a highly profitable, carefully controlled, enormously wasteful and finally doomed transit racket.
4 Brent, op.cit.
5 Brent, op.cit.
6 As late as the 13th century, land titles were often undated in England, possibly due to uncertainty among scribes as to the proper point in the past to begin counting: the creation of the world? the birth of Christ? the Crucifiction? (M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307. 1979: Harvard U. Press, cited in Ong, op.cit.)
7 Advertisers will no doubt slip modern products anachronistically into the historic moments for added impression, as well as added revenue for the programmers.
8 "morphing" is a software process of transforming one face to another or to a made-up face by rearranging the pixels mathematically. Photo manipulation software is somewhat better known, and gives the skilled user the ability to produce a counterfeit "proof" of virtually any scene one would care to have.
Trading Futures: The Abolition of the Economy
Mickey D writes on the need to destroy the economy.
The Economy has penetrated our imaginations to the point that we identify its abstractions with society itself--even our own personalities. We engage in buying and selling when we negotiate intimacy; to accept is to "buy," to improve is to "profit." Our communities are planned real-estate ventures. Professional advice-dispensers tell us to cultivate "friendships" that will advance our careers. We increasingly confront one another as rivals; egotism is a virtue. Material success is salvation, while poverty is criminal. The bank balance from the ATM machine puts a numerical value on your human worth--maybe even whether you live or die.
What do we mean when we refer to The Economy? We instinctively link it to all our social evils -- degrading jobs, clear-cut forests, wars, cancer, teenage suicides, soaring murder rates, and so on. But before any of these problems can even be addressed, the Economy must be placated by ever more sacrifice, a process which just compounds the problems. The index of social health at the end of the evening news is the Dow Jones average, not the infant mortality rate. The Economy is our religion; its temples are the banks that tower over our decaying cities. We can't imagine a world without the Economy any more than an ecclesiastic can imagine life without a supernatural God.
Obviously, all societies must organize the material means of life. But our society inverts the relationship of means to ends and makes what should be merely a precondition for life into the meaning of life. Our economic relations are not (in Karl Polanyi's word) "embedded" in our social relationships; instead, our social relationships are subservient to The Economy. A distinct and separate sphere above and beyond other social activities, the Economy makes everything dependent on the market. Ruled solely by prices, the market can allow no other values or considerations. Culture no longer subordinates the Economy (as it should), but has become utterly subordinated to it. Polanyi has said that our "animal dependence upon food has been bared and the naked fear of starvation permitted to run loose. Our humiliating enslavement to the material, which all human culture is designed to mitigate, was deliberately made more rigorous" by the market economy.
To "economize" is an everyday compulsion in a market-dominated society which exposes the underlying false premise of economics: that whereas desires are unlimited, the means of satisfying them are not. The Economy depends on expanding dissatisfaction; as desires are fulfilled, new desires must be stimulated to keep people buying. Market economies assume that people do not have rational needs, but must be constantly dazzled by advertising--without which, the Economy would probably collapse.
Scarcity in our over-productive society is artificial; one of the economists' great accomplishments is to mystify this with scientific pretensions about "laws of supply and demand," "price mechanisms," etc. Poverty is not the result of how much wealth is available, but how it is distributed. Between one-half and one-third of humanity goes hungry while food rots in warehouses because the market is the only mode of distribution that the rich will permit. As the Somali saying has it: "Scarcity and abundance are never far apart. The rich and the poor live in the same house."
The unique autonomy of The Economy is a result of the rules of market exchange. The market divorces The Economy from society by making everyone's livelihood dependent on the precarious sale of labor. Profits become the overriding end of all human enterprise. It is catastrophic to make the fear of hunger and the quest for profit socially enforced incentives to participation in economic activity--a catastrophe which has acquired global dimensions. Based on the imperative Grow or Die, competing economic entities must constantly expand in the search for new outlets, a process which will only be exhausted by the likely death of the biosphere.
Origins of the Economy
Economics derives from the Greek word oikonomia: management of the house-hold. The distance between the ancient and modern notions of economics can be perceived if one notes the utter irrationality of applying the character Homo oeconomicus to domestic relationships, where it is still considered pathological for family members to act as self-interested competitors. For the ancient Greeks, "householding" was production for one's group's own use (autarchy, or self-sufficiency)--not for gain or money-making, which was regarded as "not natural to man" (Aristotle). Money-making was "limitless" and anti-social.
Markets have a long history. However, before capitalism, markets were always accessory to social relations (kin, tribe, religion, etc.); they did not control and regulate them. During the Middle Ages, markets were limited in time (Sundays) and place (usually outside the church). However much honored in the breach, sanctions against usury--profit-making off the material needs of others--expressed fears of the socially corrosive aspects of the market. Pre-modern marketplaces such as bazaars or agoras preserved ritual social observances, often beginning with gossip and talk, then tea, family matters, and eventually discussion of the wares on offer--produced by the seller, who took a pride in the quality of his craftsmanship--and haggling or barter. Contrast this with our experience at the Mall--the Panopticon surveillance, the anonymous, indifferent sales people, the electronic registers to calculate inflexible prices, the built-in obsolence and often poisonous products.
The self-regulated market economy has its origin in 19th century industrial capitalism which turned people (labor) and nature (land) into commodities--inanimate instruments to be bought and sold. Whereas earlier societies had preserved the access to the "commons" to ensure survival and social cohesion, capitalism organized access to the means of life through production for sale, and prices determined by market allocation. The much-venerated "freedom" of the market requires the fragmentation of community bonds.
Economics as a science emerged as the analysis of this increasingly separate and autonomous market. The ideas of the neo-classical economists promoted allegedly permanent and universal truths about humanity and society. The pursuit of material gain compelled by the market was not seen as behavior forced on people as the only possible way to earn a living, but as prudent and rational behavior. To the economists, society is nonexistent except as a bunch of people without concern for each other; improvement in economic statistics is more important than whatever social disruptions result from it; human beings are utilitarian atoms possessed by an innate "propensity to truck, barter and exchange" (as Adam Smith claimed); and material maximization and the primacy of self-interest are constants of all societies. This cynical worldview became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Trade Without Profits
Formal economics presumes that its "value-free" scientific laws must be universally applicable. It sees non-market societies as underdeveloped versions of our own. While it might be accepted that other peoples have different religious, political, or kinship systems, economic relations are considered to be immutable. Economics sees all societies as supply-demand mechanisms--not expression of lived relationships. However, anthropology can show us the unimportance of economic relationships. "We must rid ourselves of the ingrained notion that the economy is a field of experience of which human beings have necessarily always been conscious," the anthropologist Marcel Mauss said.
Anthropologists have observed among many non-industrial societies the principle of usufruct--that is, the right of anyone to borrow another's property (tools, land, etc.) if it is returned in the same condition. Because the use of this stuff benefits the entire community, the notion of individual property rights above and beyond those of the group is unknown. A glimmer of usufruct is evident in periods of social rebellion when the disenfranchised loot the granaries, temples, palaces or malls and redistribute the goods for the consumption of all. This is as old as written history--as recorded by the Sumerians during the riots in Lagash or the Egyptian peasants who rose against the nobility of the Middle Kingdom (2500 B.C.)--and as recent as last year's Los Angeles riots.
Gift economies further undermine the universality of our perverse economic notions of exchange. The American Indians of the Northwest coast stretching from Cape Mendocino in California up to Prince Williams Sound in Alaska practiced gift-giving ceremonies known as potlatch, a celebration for distributing wealth and sealing social relations. Similarly, the Massim peoples of the South Sea islands near the eastern tip of New Guinea had lavish disaccumulation festivals known as kulas. In both these institutions, gift exchange functions as part of what Mauss calls a "total social phenomenon"--economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, mythological--whose meaning cannot be adequately decribed by reducing it solely to a single economic function.
The measure of wealth among the Massim and the Northwest coast Indians is society itself--all those people who band together in a daily life in which material wealth is shared and distributed as gifts. Social prestige is inextricably linked to generosity. The purpose of the giving of gifts is to keep the gifts in circulation, and give counter-gifts--not to become the venerated acquisitions of individual owners. What comes around, goes around. Unless shared, gifts are property that perish like food, from which the word "potlatch" derives. Similarly, in the kula, the gift not re-used is considered lost, while the one that is passed along "feeds" over and over again, thus remaining abundant.
Although highly personalized, these ceremonies were not evidence of "small scale" or "primitive" economics, but were in fact consciously elaborate. The kula shows that the wider and more varied the territory, the more exotic the produce and goods. Contrary to the economists's universalization of scarcity as a permanent feature of human society, the kula is actually an exuberant display of affluence.
The kula and the potlatch were not motivated by the prospect of gain; nor was labor performed for remuneration. Despite their complexity, they thrived without administration or written records, much less money. They are examples of reciprocity and redistribution--principles not very esteemed by our culture's Survival of the Fittest outlook. Economics can offer an analysis of the junk bond market, but its is a very limited tool for understanding the face-to-face relationships of gift-based societies. The individual players in these societies are personalized, not anonymous. It is absurd to view the kula as an investment yielding interest.
The pathology of our culture's avaricious hoarding of social wealth was evident to the Indians who came into contact with Europeans. "Indian giver"--a term of abuse--was coined by New England Puritans to describe the activities of the Indians (shortly before they killed them), who often sought the return of items they had given the settlers because the purpose of the gift was to be kept in circulation among different users, not settled in the home of a private "owner."I don't want to exalt the gift economy. The exchange of gifts can be onerous and burdensome; customs can be irrational. The commodity form is potentially incipient within symbolic exchange, honoring various types of hierarchy. My sketches of the kula and the potlatch are necessarily simplistic. However, I am less interested in what the anthropologists teach us about the Massim or the Kwakiutl than what they tell us about our own society which produces, among other things, anthropolgists.
Gift-economies bespeak an ideal of value which is inextricable from the social relations in which the activity of gift-giving takes place. That the distribution of social wealth can be considered a strictly amoral enterprise (as in our market-controlled society) is the economists's Big Lie. The banishment of conscience as a social principle is seen as progess; hence the mean spiritedness of all public discourse today. Gift-giving consolidates and enhances social bonds, while market exchange sunders them. This is still observed in our own neurotic gift-giving ceremonies, especially Christmas. Adorno succinctly described the fate of the gift in our Hallmark card culture:
Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one's way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of distraction. Just this hardly anyone is now able to do. At the best they give what they would have liked themselves, only a few degrees worse. The decay of giving is measured in the distressing invention of gift-articles, based on the assumption that one does not know what to give because one does not want to. This merchandise is unrelated like its buyers. It was a drug in the market from the first day. Likewise, the right to exchange the article, which signifies to the recipient: take this, its all yours, do what you like with it; if you don't want it, that's all the same to me, get something else instead. Moreover, by comparison with the embarrassment caused by ordinary presents this pure fungibility represents the more human alternative, because it at least allows the receiver to give himself a present, which is admittedly in absolute contradiction to the gift.
Human history is not a finite project: we do not have to repeat everything that has happened before, even if the past can provide a rich guide for future social innovation. I believe that it will be essential for our future to recover the authentic spirit of gift-giving. If most societies have proven susceptible to hierarchy, this can be challenged by conscious design. Capitalism may have severed (for some) archaic obligations and duties, but it has chained everyone to a new master--an invisible one at that, which pits us against one another!
The Left Embrace of the Economy
The utopian socialists called for a life which subordinates The Economy to our cultural relationships. Their legacy has been perverted by the traditional Left which protests the injustices of capitalism but has shown itself to be hopelessly mired in the economistic mentality. For all his brilliance and penetrating insight into capitalism, Marx reified the Economy by positing that the social basis for power structures derived from economic power. The historical achievement of capitalism was to strip bare the class nature of social power. Marx was thus convinced of capitalism's progressive role, even to the point of believing that English imperialism laid the foundations for socialism in rural India. The loss of the utopian ideal can be felt with painful clarity by a look at the Left today-- giving new meaning to demoralization. Appeals are strictly to bread-and-butter issues, which no matter how important, ignore the fact that most people--even hungry people--are more than just stomachs. It's no wonder that the Right has been in ascendancy for well over a decade given its focus on issues long ignored by leftists. In its dedication to a losing game of realpolitik, the Left can deliver nothing but windy exhortations for more jobs--even if that means putting police uniforms on the jobless and sending them to control the public.
Leftist schemes all share the faith that social problems can be redressed by economic means, that the economic roles in our lives--as producers and consumers--is the lever for renewal. Rather than questioning the categories of economic reason--based on abstraction, calculation and quantification--the Left enhances its prestige by equating it with the liberatory project. "Economic democracy" reinforces the market concept of humans: we are consumers of rights (bequethed from above) not social beings capable of autonomous activity.
Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's concept of participatory economics, published as Looking Forward (South End Press: 1991) makes an admirable attempt to envision a non-market organization of life, but falls into the trap of book-keeper socialism. They divide social life into Production and Consumption councils--a bogus and arbitrary dualism. Is food produced or consumed? No doubt when corn is grown by farmers, it is produced; when eaten by a steel worker, it is consumed. Yet isn't food necessary for the production of steel? Isn't food as much a tool of humanity as the tractor? Isn't the steel worker's dwelling as necessary for her to be productive as it is in some sense space that she "consumes?" And how do you quantify a piece of music? Is it a luxury or a necessity to a vital and active intelligence?
Another assumption guiding economic thought that the Left uncritically accepts is that one only gives in order to receive. Malthus (the miserable economist who invented the bogus theory of "overpopulation") wrote that we must "consider man as he really is, inert, sluggish, and averse from labour unless compelled by necessity"--a restatement, by the way, of Newton's first law of motion. Socialist economists go to all kinds of lengths to devise a system whereby goods are justly allocated on the basis of work contributed. Even after the abolition of the market and the socialization of property, the surplus will still be meted out according to a form of wages: namely, notes certifying quantities of labor time. This still preserves work as compulsive, alienated activity, subordinating people to things--what's called "idolatry" in some contexts.
How does one measure the contribution of an individual to society? As soon as the the legitimacy of this question is granted, human society is insulted by subjecting the individual to a degrading and ultimately meaningless system of comparison. Feminists have pointed out the way our society systematically devalues occupations associated with women--i.e. housework, nursing, social work, teaching, cultural activities (not surprisingly, those that involve a degree of gift-giving)--while valorizing traditionally male-dominated professions such as banking and law. This invidious calculation is operative throughout the wage system. Is street-sweeping less essential to public health than the more prestigious and lucrative jobs of doctors? Where does one person's work lead off and another's begin--i.e., the professor who relies on his graduate students for suggestions and research? How could an aerospace designer realize his plans without a welder? Giving in order to get: the same alienated labor that reduces social life to a series of bargains between negotiators rather than relationships among equals.
Examples of non-alienated labor abound, even in our crazed market society: the passion of the artist who endures obscurity and poverty because she is guided by a pursuit more compelling than fame and money; scientists who endure ostracism and years of painstaking research for the beauty of discovery itself. Blood and organs are donated as a gift of life, even if the U.S. medical industry markets them for profit. We have all had the experience of doing a person a favor, helping someone in distress, and knowing that the pleasure that comes from the deed itself--not because we get some payment in return. In fact, it is an insult to be offered money for doing our good deed. I believe this gift-giving principle must be applied to everything we do in order to break the stranglehold of The Economy.
I'm not proposing that everybody work for free. Obviously, we are already overburdened by an excess of philanthropy--why else do we work for the enrichment of others who we never meet and who would just as soon nuke us? Nor do I want the rich to become more charitable, which is just a tactic by which they negotiate the class barrier. Instead, we should recreate society itself by abolishing the Economy.
"Time is money," goes the saying, and we are running out of both. Like time, money makes everything identical. Just as no moment is ever the same--no matter how many ten o'clocks, Tuesdays, Septembers, etc. occur--so no two things in a liberated society would ever be the same, no two activities commensurable. Measurement has its place, but its triumph over life itself in the form of prices must be re-assessed.
As the 19th century anarchist Wilhelm Weitling prophesized: "A time will come when...we shall light a vast fire with banknotes, bills of exchange, wills, tax registers, rent contracts and I.O.U.s and everyone will throw his purse into the fire." Let's stop looking to the Dismal Science for solutions and begin creating a science of pleasure, human enrichment and a new sociability.
Virtual Hell: Interfacial Futures
Fiction by Chris Carlsson.
Birds chirping, the wind steadily beat her face as she walked along the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Suddenly a large black box emerged from the path behind her ... she heard the telltale warning chime and ten seconds later she felt that irritating "thunk" behind her eyes. The black box unfolded into the control room at the plant--flashing red lights indicated a system failure in sector 3, the lubrication center.
She automatically punched up a series of commands, dispatching repair staff and moving a remote backup unit to support the built-in second as it smoothly filled the gap left by its failed predecessor. Immediately the whirring rush began. An intense hit of endorphin pleasure overwhelmed her as she was soon again strolling along the coastal cliffs.
After a deep breath she relaxed back into a contemplative reverie. Just a few minutes later a flashing red light among some rocks caught her eye. She reached out, smiling, and caressed the surface of the bulb. A voice emanated from the rock:
"Hi honey. A package arrived on today's download... looks like some new drivers. You wanna take one for a spin?" The voice cackled mischieviously. "You are the best you know," it wheedled in a flattering but obsequious tone.
Standing back from the bulb, Angie looked at her hand, then around at the slightly pixilated coastline. She sighed. Everything was so boring. "New drivers, new drivers, people always gettin' so excited 'bout new drivers, ecch!" she muttered. She was good at pushing new Workface Interspacesr (WI) to their limits. Whatever they threw at her, within a couple of hours she had crashed it. She started by changing too much in the artificial environment and overloading the channel. When they put a timer on her to pace her activities she gave it very long, multiple link commands which soon overloaded it again.
But she also quickly learned how to get the most out of the WI when it was installed. Many days would pass as she dreamily wandered through rainforests, coral reefs, deserts and mountains, only seeing her actual worksite for five minutes each morning and evening. Sometimes she would take in historic boxing matches--she had ringside seats three different times to see the second Ali-Frazier fight. The Louis-Schmelling bout was another favorite. Once in a while she'd go to the opera, or maybe a musical, but it was easy to find actual shows around town so she preferred to explore history, or at least that sugar-coated collection of skimpy, implausible fairy tales they called WIstory. She once visited a simulation of A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover discussing the nationwide arrest of 10,000 radical workers on January 3, 1920, many of whom were later deported without any due process. The self-congratulatory cigars and excited fidgeting of Hoover had fascinated her even as it repelled her, and she had tried to kick over the table but found she was locked out of any real interaction. Angie later found a way to place Emma Goldman in the room and within minutes she had both men sputtering mad, turning red, trying to grab Emma as she gave them a good dose of her rage and passionate convictions but escaping every grope and reach. This was fun until Angie brought in Louise Bryant and they behaved exactly the same way and it was clear that the behavioral possibilities were in fact very limited. Later experiments revealed that they could only have 3 different ranges of emotional response, which upon further reflection, wasn't much worse than most people!
This was the problem for Angie: she knew people were infinitely more creative and interesting than these simulations, but the more time she spent with simulations, the more she could see how limited her fellow humans were. A foul misanthropy began to fester in her soul. She lost all sense of connection to the people around her.
She worked for 17 more years at that plant before it was further automated and she was laid off along with 5 of the remaining 11 workers. The pension plan promised unlimited access to WIstory, or any two other Vironoments of your choice at retirement. Angie thought about it long and hard before selecting Coastal Commune circa 1971, Madison Square Garden 1948, and a beautiful Greek island 2010 (well before the war and Turkey's nuclear attack in 2016). She sold her organs in advance, bought a long-term maintenance contract from The Body Bag, ate the WI Toggle SwitchOE to get back and forth between Vironoments, plugged herself in at the the BB Center, and lived happily ever after.
Slowly he inched forward, almost hovering behind a small blue sports car. To his right a huge truck was heading to a superstore, and on his left a tour bus sped towards gambling success in the desert, boxing him in cozily. Traffic was really slow today, but Herb didn't mind. In fact, he had just installed the Red Light/Green Light Traffic Delay Simulator after downloading it from the Job Survival Library at his local Telecommuter Bulletin Board, and he was really pleased at the realism.
Over 30 years ago he had driven with his father to work one day, not long before the mandatory shuttle system was installed. That old Subaru-bishi had been retired along with a dozen neighbors' "good ole cars" in a big block party and sledgehammer competition. He had gotten a good whack or two, even though he'd only been about 5 or 6. The deeply corrupt Oil Era was over soon after that, but Americans' nostalgia for it was as strong as the incomprehensible adulation of Stalin that still motivated millions in Russia.
Five years ago Telecommuters Associations (TAs) had swept across the country, establishing standards and sharing information among millions of isolated telecommuters. Every local TA BBS had been swamped with new contacts as soon as it opened. Chapters sprung up across the country, typically meeting in large Country & Western bars in prosperous suburbs. Cyberwestern Drinking Holes, Unlimited went public and thanks to the still strong desire to drink socially, their formula was a winner, their IPO was a huge success, and a curious political power was born: telecommuters who would leave home to meet at leather-covered C&W bars with air-conditioned tables, allowing for those who couldn't make it by conducting live video meetings over PubChan 5.32A in most area codes. A 20% tax on each CDH's proceeds was kicked back to the local TA, funding its ongoing organizing, and providing a steady stream of drinkers and smokers. Meanwhile a renewed style of face-to-face discussion took place, leading to many animated evenings in which wild scheming and far-fetched dreaming competed for attention with encryption protocols and re-use agreements. The process of public discussion with call-in direct participation produced an extraordinary euphoria among its participants, spreading contagiously as a greed for authenticity swept the people.
Herb steered his sedan into the left lane as he saw an opening, and he accelerated by clutching the senso-rod in his palm. Then he braked suddenly by slamming down on the tip as the entire freeway slowed again to a crawl, red tail lights crowding his view. He brought his vehicle to a nice meditative stop-n-go, and began to daydream. He touched the authentic radio knobs and tuned in to an AM station with old rock from the 1950's. He started to imagine what he might do later that night when he realized that he was going to be late again. It was already 8:37 and he was still a good 15 minutes from work. Part of the realism of Red Light/Green Light was the locking system that forced you to stay with it even if you decided you'd rather abort and get on to work. It imposed the unpredictability and inconvenience along with the nostalgically pleasing time in the car.
As one of the main Telecommuter activists that fought for Equal Commute Time Rights, Herb was pretty embarrassed when he got stuck like this. He had been fierce in his certainty that serious and unavoidable delays would be extremely rare if the system were designed properly. And he had beta-tested it for months, so he couldn't avoid the chagrin and shame that swept over him as he drummed his fingers on his desk, waiting for the stupid Virtual Traffic Jam to clear his screen.
He fumbled through the bon bons, finally choosing an oblong one. His eyes were glued to the screen, the colors flashing in his face in the otherwise dark room. Outside it was bright and sunny, but Frank hadn't taken a look for quite a long time. Thick musty drapes covered every window in the dank, yellowed apartment. The 6-foot square screen in his bedroom made the room seem a lot larger, "like a window on the world"OE, he thought. He liked to have several shows on at once, so he wouldn't miss any really good deals. He was really fast and had an encyclopedic knowledge of prices and the Producing Countries. If a shirt was made by Vietnamese workers in San Francisco or Indonesians in Sydney or Angolans in Rio de Janeiro, he knew if it well-sewen, good cotton, everything! He was as fascinated by trying to calculate the world's cheapest producer as he was by the obsessive purchase of things he would never use.
I stopped by once, to ask his advice about some thing I was going to buy, I forget what. His eyes never left the screen as he waved me to sit down and wait. He leaned forward, punching furiously at his calculator pad and then typing in prices, styles and sizes, breathing heavily and sweating profusely. When he sent his order and waited for the displays to arrive to his screen, he clutched a SuperBigGulp'oFizz and sucked on the straw so hard he turned purple.
"Of course, you DOGS!" he exclaimed admiringly, looking quickly back and forth from his laptop to the TV. He punched his remote to enlarge the winner, the Shanghai Bazaar, and punched again to bring in his Shopperr. I was astonished to see a trim handsome young man appear from the right of the screen, give us the obligatory wink, nod, thumbs up, and crossed fingers, and turn to enter the Bazaar. Frank's Shopperr bore no resemblance to the wheezing 400-lb. blob of flesh and sweat controlling this "Interaction Excursion for Acquisition" or IEA (generally pronounced "YAY!").
Intense narrowcasting swept retailing in the past few years but the Shanghai Bazaar, live from Shanghai, still held the superstore charm of the old Wal-Mart Channel. You could find anything--their slogan invoked another time too: If we don't have it, you don't need it! And the Chinese were nearly always able to give the best quality for the least, controlling production all over Asia as they did.
The unbelievable dashing young Frank Shopperr bounded into the sea of neon, soon halting abruptly in the dizzying way these Shoppersr always do, in a sweatband shop. Frank rode his "hard line" button as his simulacra began the bargaining."I'd like to try on at least five."
The Salesulacra gave a sort of "are you kidding?" sneer directly at us, but smiled and suggested that two selections were customarily enough to arrive at a satisfactory purchase.
Frank grinned as he joined the battle, and he had his Shopperr begin backing out of the shop.
"No, NO! Please, my friend, come and see what you like...but you must buy at least two."
"Before you protest let me say that we are offering a special deal for the next twenty minutes only--2 for the price of 1.41! I'm sure you'd agree, that's a pretty good deal!"
The WinkMar SalesdeVicer was nearly irresistible. Frank licked his lips as he agreed to buy at least two--then he punched in orders for five!
Chimes sounded, "A Package At The Door"OE.
I went to get it for him, as he was so overwrought by his time in Shanghai, he couldn't have moved for some minutes. At the door I found three boxes from E&J Distribution in Paterson, NJ. After I piled them next to Frank, he opened them casually as he continued to keep a close watch on Latin Loss Leaders and the Safeway Channel. He withdrew several sweaters, a pair of jeans, two pairs of boots, and a cowboy hat.
"Please," he said, turning to me at last, "will you see if any of this fits you? It's such a hassle to return things that don't fit and I can see that they messed up my order again. They always send 'em too small! But you might fit something. If not, would you be so kind as to put it in that closet in the hallway?"
I left with the jeans. The rest I somehow crammed into that closet. It was completely filled with clothes, books, appliances, cameras, dishes, tons of stuff! All unopened, in original boxes! A core sample of that closet's contents would give you a capsule history of 20 years of tele-shopping, I'm sure. . . Maybe I can get a grant!
"Goin' Yay" had become the major activity for millions, gradually destroying that late 20th century remnant of true sociability, the Mall. The chokehold of the oil/auto industrial monster was finally broken when TV shopping replaced most other kinds and gasoline consumption dropped by 50% in a year and a half. Capital finally wrote off the old dead investments of the 20th century and went Bi-Eco in what we've come to know as "A New Deal For A New Century"